May 22, 2018 – The Walkerton Tragedy: Lessons Learned and Unfinished Business
(Canadian Environmental Law Association)
FOCA has been working on what has been called “source water protection” since FOCA was founded in the 1960’s. FOCA pursues this goal by advocating for strong policies to protect our valuable water sources, and by encouraging the stewardship of Ontario’s waters by every individual.
FOCA’s Executive Director, Terry Rees, has been intimately involved with water initiatives for over 20 years, including the development and implementation of the Ontario Clean Water Act, 2006. In his 2001 presentation to Justice Dennis O’Connor, Terry is quoted, “The future safety of drinking water in the Province is inextricably tied to the care that we take in managing the integrity of these sources.” Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner also emphasized at the time the need for source protection: “The true protection for all our drinking water … lies upstream of the treatment plant.” (quotes courtesy of Walkerton Inquiry Part 2, Final Report)
It is then very much of interest to FOCA that Ontario’s Auditor General (AG) included a chapter on Source Water Protection in her 2014 report. The objective of the audit was to assess whether the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) had effective systems and procedures to:
- ensure the long-term sustainability of the sources of drinking water in the province;
- reduce health risks and potential future costs by effectively managing and protecting drinking water sources in accordance with related legislation; and
- reliably measure and report on its performance.
It has been over fifteen years since the tragedy in Walkerton, and – unfortunately – local “Source Protection Plans” legislated under Ontario’s Clean Water Act, 2006 are only just being approved.
Source water protection is a general term for protection of all water supplies, no matter the end use (e.g. wildlife habitat, recreation). The efforts directed by the Clean Water Act should more accurately be called municipal drinking water source protection.
While the geographic scope of this legislation protects drinking water sources for the majority of Ontarians, most lakes and rivers are not included in the protections under the Act. By its very scope, and a focus on municipal water supplies, rural water is essentially excluded; that is to say, the 1.6 million Ontarians that depend on private wells, and those who get their household water from more than 250,000+ inland lakes or 500,000 km of rivers and streams. Ensuring this water is safe to drink requires homeowner vigilance and an understanding of “private” drinking water systems.
Note that untreated surface water should never be considered a safe source for drinking – no matter how clean or healthy the lake is!
Great Lakes still a concern
Despite being the source of drinking water for over 75% of Ontario’s population, plans may not include all potential threats to the Great Lakes, such as spills from industrial and commercial facilities.
Looking out for our lakes and rivers
There are a number of water quality monitoring programs for Ontario’s lakes, and rivers, but these are generally designed to assess aquatic ecosystem health and for basic water quality indicators such as acidity, calcium and phosphorus, and pollutants such as mercury, lead, PCBs.
A notable contribution to tracking water quality over time is the MOECC/FOCA Lake Partner Program, which relies on hundreds of volunteers each year. There are also a number of programs—government run, and/or in partnership with University researchers—that sample and test water, sediment, and aquatic life. (for more, visit http://foca.on.ca/resources/, search term: “Research”)
In her 2014 report, the AG notes concerns that there are significant incidents of non-compliance with the Nutrient Management Act, 2002 and its regulations, and that the MOECC’s enforcement activities are “weak”.
One particular gap also occurs related to the threat to water from fuel storage. Across Ontario, over 4,700 such threats to water intakes were identified in local plans, but have been poorly addressed for a variety of bureaucratic reasons, despite the identified need for improved inspections and reporting of fuel spills.
It is FOCA’s hope that the Province will follow up on the concerns of the AG, who notes the Ministry needs a long-term strategy to address funding and oversight of municipalities and Conservation Authorities to ensure the plans, once approved, are implemented. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about who will fund local plan implementation, particularly in smaller municipalities with a limited property tax base.
Further, there needs to be a process to update the threats to source water, and the policies to address these threats.
As members of the Trent Conservation Coalition (TCC), FOCA joined with our fellow source protection committee members in celebrating the October 23, 2014 approval by the Minister of the Trent and Ganaraska Source Protection Plans, and which came into legal effect January 1, 2015. This committee was charged with helping to develop the water protection plans for the Trent and Ganaraska Watersheds, which includes the Haliburton, and Kawartha Lakes regions. Other “lake and river” interests were represented on many of the other 18 source protection regions.
November 2015 – Ontario actually fares relatively well in a national assessment of safe drinking water sources, though most of the evaluation relates to the safety of MUNICIPAL drinking water…. See: Millions of people are still getting their drinking water from substandard municipal and private systems (National Post)
Related: Report : Waterproof 3 – Monitoring Canada’s Drinking Water
To learn more about protecting your water at the lake or riverside, visit http://foca.on.ca/resources/ and see the links under “Lake Environments”